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The Mars rover Curiosity made headlines in early August when it landed safely and set to work on the red planet. The latest on Mars continues to make headlines.
On Aug. 19, Earth received the first Martian chemical data produced by Curiosity’s ChemCam and its rock-zapping laser.
The data came by radio and took 14 minutes to speed 154 million miles back to earthlings eager to see more.
We marvel at the technical wonders that tell us what is on the next planet out from the sun.
Curiosity explores the state of Mars.
And exhibits ideas that can help with Earth’s problems.
Which technologies aboard the rover Curiosity could be adapted to local needs for environmental sampling and analysis? If we can detect chemicals and their histories on Mars, can we check out pollutants more quickly on Earth?
These questions sprang up on a bright September day at this year’s Next Big Idea Festival that our town holds each year.
A mock-up of Curiosity and the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s ChemCam stood on the well-kept grass beside the laboratory tent.
The Star Wars look of it was enough to ask “what if?”
The first lesson from Mars is that we don’t have to ship or handle chemical samples to analyze them. Shipping and such add cost and delay. On Mars, sampling and measuring are done on site with light – with lasers and spectrometers (light analyzers).
What if regulatory engineers on Earth used easily portable spectrometers to analyze for pollutants? What if data arrived in hours instead of months or years? What if data were geared to learning instead of lawsuits?
The realm of possibility has more to draw from than before.
Any discussion of everyday uses begins with cost. The Mars rover took nine years to develop and build at a total cost of $2.5 billion. Is that a good buy?
Any thought of reaching and probing the Martian landscape has to start with a giant leap. The $2.5 billion met its mission and evolved creators and vendors of improved technologies.
As a cost comparison, pet owners paid $3.8 billion in 2011 for pet services, that is, for grooming, boarding and baby-sitting pets.
The $3.8 billion evolved creators and vendors of improved pet services. Such things can come in small steps.
Ideas keep on as a pulse does.
Spectroscopic tools on the market keep improving the power to analyze chemicals by light emissions. Different types have names as strange as infrared, Raman, and Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS), which is used on Mars. Each one has unique advantages.
Without the design burdens imposed by space travel, a handheld Raman analyzer with decent accuracy costs about $30,000.
Could such a tool fit together with other ideas to make clean air regulation cheaper, faster and better?
Intel New Mexico has many requirements to do testing. The chip plant spends upwards of $500,000 a year on testing stack emissions every three months as set by rules.
The data were valuable when the testing began in the 1990’s. But as years pass, the test results look much the same every time and are little used by anyone.
What if regular stack tests were cut to once a year instead of four times?
The change would save upward of $300,000 a year that now go to gathering little-used data.
In its stead, imagine checking stack emissions at random times with a portable spectrometer. The quick results could give added information about emissions.
The yearly outlay would be less and more would be learned.
The idea for change is worth a good look, whatever your point of view is.
What if looking led to better ideas?
What if regulation became more efficient?
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water